Chris McDaniel’s Tea Party takedown is a political earthquake

The numbers are in, and a Mississippi legend is on his way out.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting in Tuesday’s Mississippi primary, the Tea Party state senator Chris McDaniel edged out Thad Cochran by a narrow margin of less than one percentage point. With neither candidate reaching 50 percent, McDaniel and Cochran will face each other again in a run off on June 24.

The outcome may have been the squeaker that polling predicted, but it’s an amazing turnaround for the six-term senator who has become a household name in Mississippi politics.

McDaniel’s first place finish, if it is repeated on June 24, will mark the first time since 1942 that a Mississippi incumbent senator has been bested at the ballot box. The longtime U.S. Senator seemed to have everything going for him, from heavy establishment support to a multi-million dollar campaign war chest.

He also had a conservative voting record that his supporters say is unimpeachable, ranging from 100 percent ratings by the anti-abortion group National Right to Life and the pro-gun NRA to steady and vocal opposition to Obamacare.

And if he’d survived last Tuesday, the 36-year Senate veteran would have been in line to chair the powerful Appropriations Committee if his party reclaimed the majority.

Thad Cochran (Wikipedia)
Thad Cochran (Wikipedia)

But McDaniel and his Tea party allies saw things differently. To the Tea Party in Mississippi, it wasn’t enough to simply have a conservative record and have been effective in bringing in federal aid to the state. For the far right in a deep red state like Mississippi, the real question determining the primary was which candidate would be a more vehement opponent of the current president. That was the narrative that McDaniel pushed on the campaign trail.

 “No one in the state can name a single charge that Senator Cochran has led against Barack Obama. What good is seniority if he’s not willing to fight?”

Both men benefited from out-of-state support, though McDaniel was given crucial air cover by the influential conservative group Freedom Works. The Club For Growth and Tea Party Patriots also pounded the airwaves with ads lifting the challenger, deriding Cochran as an ineffective agent of conservatism—a Republican whose feeble resistance to Obamacare didn’t meet the flame-throwing Ted Cruz’s standard of obstruction.

Sure, he voted against ObamaCare, just like every Republican. But Cochran then voted for budgets that funded ObamaCare and kept it going,” the narrator intoned in a radio ad.

It’s a pattern that has been seen in GOP primaries since 2010. Merely voting against the President’s agenda isn’t enough for most GOP primary voters. To earn the approval of Republican primary voters and win the GOP nod for a federal race, candidates increasingly have to communicate fury rather than principled objection to the Obama agenda. Faced with the choice between a mild-mannered GOP Senator—a conservative to be sure, but not one who will employ partisan scorched-earth tactics in Washington– against a rock-ribbed Tea Partier who has declared war on the establishment, Republicans have once again gone with the Tea Party.

Palin and McDaniel - a future ticket? (Public Domain)
Palin and McDaniel – a future ticket? (Screenshot)

To be sure, Thad Cochran is not doomed yet. He could theoretically advance past the runoff, and he will have the resources and allies to compete until June 24. But the electorate he faced last Tuesday is likely the most friendly group of primary voters he will ever face. The Mississippi Republicans who turn out again for the runoff will be a smaller, angrier group that is even more likely to back to challenger.

This makes it more than likely that Thad Cochran’s name will be added to the growing list of GOP giants in the Senate who were once so popular, powerful and respected that they could never be defeated by Democrats. Indiana’s Richard Lugar, Utah’s Bob Bennett and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter all cultivated moderate reputations to a varying degree, and were all rejected by primary voters who preferred purity to compromise.

Chris McDaniel still in the hunt. (Public Domain)
Chris McDaniel still in the hunt. (Public Domain)

If McDaniel advances to the Senate, he will be another Senator for the Tea Party, a renegade in the style of Ted Cruz. In a Congress that’s already characterized by gridlock and brinksmanship, another partisan warrior will cause headaches for Democrats and Republicans alike. This raises an interesting question for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Should they continue pouring money and staffers into Mississippi in an effort to prop of Thad Cochran, however unlikely his survival is? Or should they save money for candidates who have something closer to an even shot of winning?

The official outcome of the Republican Senate primary won’t be known until the night ofJune 24. But there was a definite winner in Tuesday’s contest. Democrat Travis Childers, a former Congressman who built a conservative voting record representing a quarter of the state, has clinched the Democratic nomination.

Depending on how formidable of a candidate McDaniel ends up being, he has either won a stunning opportunity to pull off an upset and advance to the Senate as the first Mississippi Democrat to do so since 1982—or he’s won the right to a respectable loss in the neighborhood of ten points. It all depends Chris McDaniel’s ability to campaign. There’s the possibility that the Republican state lawmaker could be the next Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock, a candidate who implodes his own candidacy through incendiary remarks. Democrats can only hope.